Comic Art: Characteristics and Potentialities of a Narrative Medium, Abbott (1986)

Abbott, Lawrence L. “Comic Art: Characteristics and Potentialities of a Narrative Medium.” Journal of Popular Culture 19.4 (1986): 155-76.

I’ve collected and read a lot of articles on comics in the past few years, but I rarely manage to write about them in any manner. I’m going to try to write more posts about comics theory/criticism, as I make my way through the various pdfs and photocopies.

Abbott’s article from 1986 seems to be one of the earlier examples in English that takes a more formal approach to discussing comics. Most of what I have that pre-dates this is in French (with a few exceptions). I did a citation search in a few places to see if there was much discussion about this article, but I found little. It’s cited a few times, mostly, I think, because it was a scholarly source that could be cited on comics for some common sense elements of comics (words affect the pictures, pictures affect the words).

A few points worth mentioning:

A. Abbott loses points immediately for starting his discussion with the work of Lichtenstein. I guess it’s a safe option, to start with a “fine” artist who uses comic imagery, but it immediately reinforces the sense of high/low art, going along with the idea that Lichtenstein has to be in there to prop up the discussion of comics. This is understandable as an opening gambit (particularly in the context of a time when “comics aren’t just for kids” wasn’t an overused cliche), but he compounds the issue by using numerous examples from Lichtenstein in his discussion, rather than actual, you know, comics. Throughout he also stresses Lichtenstein’s use of various elements of comics, an authority of which I would like more proof, as Lichtenstein was taking his imagery from actual comics, not making it from whole cloth. For instance here’s one of example’s Abbott uses next to the original:

Original on the left, Lichtenstein on the right.

Original on the left, Lichtenstein on the right.

(Image from the Deconstructing Lichtenstein Project by David Barsalou)

Lichtenstein’s alterations in this case are minimal, other than moving the narrative caption to the right of the image.

B. “The borders of the panel, similar to the borders of a representational painting, define a framed opening through which one sees the scene behind.” (156)

This is conventional notion, of the panel as a kind of window onto a world, becomes problematized in many cases, particularly if one looks at abstract comics. Abbott is careful to say “representational painting,” and, not unexpectedly, considers all comics as representational too. In fact, much of Abbott’s discussion suffer a similar problem of discussing the structure of “conventional narrative comics” in the guise of “comics as a whole.”

C. Abbott’s considerations are of a literary nature: “the manner of perception is to a great extent determined by the literary nature of the comic art panel. The perceiver is, after all, termed a ‘reader’–and the subordination of the pictorial to the literary in comic art is one of the subtlest realities of the medium. Of course, this subordination in no way reduces the importance of the comic art drawings, which can create images and enhance the narration with greater power and economy than words; it merely indicates that the comic art drawing, as a narrative element must conform to an order of perception that is essentially literary.” (156)

Just the way some of that passage is structured points to Abbott’s literary and word/textual/verbal focus. The drawings “enhance” the narration in comparison to words. The art is like an addition, not a base.

Further proof of Abbott’s textual focus: “When a panel or series of panels contains artwork only and no written text, obviously the burden of narration falls solely on the pictorial element. Such sequences can be successful, but the demands placed on the drawings are quite stringent. One may say, in fact, that the drawings must generate a ‘visual text’ that can be read without ambiguity.” (166) He makes it sound like wordless sequences are rare and difficult to accomplish, yet there is (and was) no dearth of examples of such. Not to mention cases where the narrative text is redundant and in excess of narrative needs.

In the article to provide some well done readings of a few panels and sequences from that same Amazing Spider-man #4 (Lee and Ditko 1964), though sticking to his ideas that the “main ordering force” of comics is “literary, not pictorial” (167) and actually having to address the issue of what quality the pictures adds to the panel. He brings up the idea of the “characteristic moment” but never defines it. I’m still not sure what he means, though it deals with the images, the breakdowns, I think.

I can’t over emphasize how much importance he gives to the text even in a sequence from Spider-man that is all action with mostly superfluous talking.

D. He discusses the conventions of text in comics (this is the part that gets cited the most). He focuses on “three main types” of text in comics: narration, dialogue, sound effect. Once again, the expected conventions, though overlooking diegetic text and other varied uses of text.

Abbott posits and diagrams the textual elements as sitting on the same level as the panel itself, separate from the drawings in the panel with the sound effects acting a mixed level of the visual and the verbal. He discusses these issues using images from Lichtenstein (were no comic panels available?). Discussing the hierarchy of text and image in narration by using Lichtenstein’s out-of-context panels is problematic. Narration in comics cannot be understood in isolation like that (he does get to sequences later).

He mentions the “limiting or guiding factor” that text has on understanding the picture’s meaning, an idea which can be easily connected to Barthes’ anchorage and relay.

E. One of the more useful ideas in the article, and the one that stick with me, is the idea of
an “order of perception” in comics. He describes eye movement through comics as a combination of textual “reading” (left to right, top to bottom) and “pictorial perception” (the way one views a painting, directed by content/form rather than a pre-defined system of movement). Again, a Lichtenstein example proves problematic. Isolating the panel to discuss reading a comic, takes away the level of the page. Abbott gives prominence to the textual reading over pictorial perception in the panel (read the text, then look at the picture), which discounts the pictorial view a reader can take of the page (or spread) as a whole before reaching any individual panel.

He diagrams an example of eye movement through a Lichenstein diptych. I can’t say my path through the image matches the one he posits. Though, again, out of a page context, it’s hard to match the same reading as in a comic page. Part of Lichtenstein’s work is about recontextualizing those images into paintings, gallery work, which is “read” differently than a comics page/panel.

F. A discussion of “duration” is one of the most contentious (to me) sections of the article. “Each drawing on the comic strip/book page has its allotted reading time, without which narrative continuity would be severely hindered” (162) He posits that text creates the time frame of a panel. I disagree with this idea, it makes it sound like there is some absolute notion of time and reading in comics. I do believe that there is relative rhythm that can be created in comics, a sense of speed that affects our reading and our perception of the diegetic time, but this sense of “allotted time” is far too cut and dried.

This is emphasized by Abbott’s second example of duration. His first, a panel with lots of word balloons not unlike the one McCloud uses in Understanding Comics when discussing the same issue, does point out clearly the way the text can create the reader’s sense of time in a panel. But the second example, a panel from Amazing Spider-man #4, shows a character (I think its the Sandman) mid-motion after bursting out of a now broken door. Above him, a thought balloon tails off-panel with a long thought by Spider-man. Abbott notes: “The few seconds that it takes to read Spider-Man’s thought thus create the time element necessary for the action to take place, even though only an instant of time is depicted.” The action in question is Sandman bursting through the door, the end of which is shown.

This statement, to me, creates a weird image of the comic as a film running while we read. While we read the panel, the action plays out behind the scenes, until we finish the text and the film stops on the image at that moment. I find it highly unusual, and again, the idea is working too hard to make the text-image interaction too organized and consistent a system.

G. Abbott’s main, admirable, goal is inquiring into comics ability to be a serious art form. Abbott’s focus in this enquiry is visual-verbal relations, throughout which he seems to work hard to overemphasize the text and underemphasize the images in comics. This is a strange article, in that I feel Abbott is pushing and pulling against himself and comics. One step forward, one step back.

In the end, Abbott sums up by noting how juvenile the Spider-man comic is, but stressing how there are an increasing number of sophisticated stories being told in a number of countries. Yet, not only is one left wondering why he didn’t choose one of those stories to use as examples, but one is left wondering who these sophisticated comic artist are, because he doesn’t name names, not a single one.